California Dreams : Director Mike Ott fuses narrative and documentary techniques to craft this portrait of a handful of would-be actors and writers, desperate to make it big yet trapped in mundane, “normal” lives. The scenes are staged, but the people and their emotions are real, and he both creates and captures moments that are touching, tragic, and offhandedly funny, often by merely hanging with his scenes long enough for unexpected truths to reveal themselves. They display an ear for the rhythms of everyday life (or, more often than not, the lack of rhythm); it’s a truthful film, and an empathetic one. Genuinely peculiar, but wildly successful at the very specific thing it’s trying to do.
Shadow World : This indictment of what is now, perhaps too easily, acknowledged as the military-industrial complex from director John Grimonprez is one of those movies that seems to start simply, with a single subject, yet logically and skillfully pushing past to an ever-widening series of targets. And thus an expose of a war profiteering scandal becomes a meticulous and irrefutable indictment of an entire way of seeing the world – and of accordingly doing business, in government, in the military, in the private sector, and in the increasingly blurred areas between them. Via precise cutting and ingenious archival excavation, Grimonprez paints a terrifying portrait of where we are, and the improbability of turning back anytime soon.
ON HBO GO
Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison : Guests of the Red Onion State Prison, a supermax facility in Virginia, are (per their warden) “the worst-behaving offenders in the state,” and they’re treated accordingly: they spend 23 hours per day, seven days a week, in an 8×10 cell, all alone. The general din that fills the facility is the sounds of scary people losing their damn minds – and Kristi Jacobson’s thoughtful documentary asks whether such isolation is ultimately beneficial to either these prisoners or the world around them. It’s not an activist documentary; she does not soft-soap the things these men have done, in and out of prison. But she wants to understand how incarceration and claustrophobia have led them to create their own, skewed sense of reality and gravity, and what the literally inescapable hopelessness of their station has wrought. Her film listens to them, not impassively, but not with prejudice; she puts you into their world, and asks how you would make your way through it.
ON BLU-RAY / AMAZON PRIME
Joe : Olive Films recently upgraded this 1970 sleeper hit from director John G. Avildsen, who went on to direct Rocky – a bit of a shock, since Joe is the mathematical opposite of a feel-good movie. A respectable suburban ad man tries to track down his drug-addicted hippie daughter (Susan Sarandon, in her film debut) in the scuzz of NYC with the help of Joe (Peter Boyle, electrifying), whom he meets in the “American Bar and Grill,” where he loudly makes pronouncements like “42% of all liberals are queer!” and “Why work when you can screw, have babies, and get paid for it?” Between the title character, who may as well wear a MAGA hat, and the film’s original tag line (“Keep America Beautiful”), it’s become an oddly timely film, but its politics aren’t simple; it’s pretty cynical, generally, about everyone. This is a blunt, ugly picture – particularly in its closing passages – but it gets the point across. (Also streaming on Prime Video.) (Includes UK trailer.)
Manila in the Claws of Light: The week’s sole genuinely “new release” is a Criterion Collection edition of this 1975 portrait of poverty and despair from Philippine director Lino Brocka. He tells the story of Julio, a kid from the sticks who travels to the big city in search of his missing girl, but Brocka works in a neorealist style that focuses on the bleakness of his options and the day-to-day difficulty of a life in which workers scammed and shorted by their own employers, and how their desperation enables exploitation. (Near the end, Julio stumbles across a “down with capitalism” rally, and by then, the movie’s made the argument pretty well). It’s a melodrama with a noir set-up – and, ultimately, a good noir’s sense of nihilism. (Includes two documentaries, interview, and new introduction by Martin Scorsese.)